Wednesday, April 14, 2010


In January Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake. In terms of casualties it was the tenth most catastrophic natural disaster in history. Much of the capital was destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and a tenth of the country lost their homes. Even the President was made homeless by the destruction of his official and personal residences. For the first time, much of the world took note of the agony of this small island nation. "Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Island Civilization," quipped the Onion.

For Haitian, the 2010 earthquake which captured the world's sympathy was not a uniquely terrific shock, but one in a series. With a level of development on par with sub-Saharan Africa and a per-capita GDP one-sixtieth that of the United States Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Once upon a time it was that region's richest colony, France's "Pearl of the Antilles". This pearl's rich plantations made its French overlords wealthy, its people, however, were exterminated and replaced by African slaves.

Saint-Domingue, as the French called it, was first settled by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but as greater wealth was found elsewhere Spain lost interest and was gradually replaced by French colonists, first by pirates and later by equally thuggish planters. In 1697 Spain recognized what was to become Haiti as French territory.

This arrangement, whereby French planters grew rich off the forced labor of African slaves on land stolen from an exterminated indigenous population persisted for nearly a hundred years. Then, in 1791, inspired by the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity articulated by French revolutionaries Haiti's enslaved, nearly 90% of the population, revolted. Within a year, a third of the territory of the nation had been freed, but France would not let its former colony go easily. Independence would not come until 1804, after Napoleon had sent his armies to restore slavery and independence leader Toussaint L'Ouverture was kidnapped to a French dungeon where he died. Haiti had been liberated at the cost of a hundred-thousand dead civilians, but its agony was far from over.

The Revolution left the once vibrant economy in shambles. Embarrassed imperialists and nervous slaveholders resolved to keep it that way, so as to deter any imitations. Haiti became a pariah, unable to trade in international markets and fearful of a reinvasion. It was under this threat that French King Charles X offered recognition to Haiti in 1825- in exchange for an indemnity of 25 million gold Franks. It was a crippling debt, but one which Haiti had little choice but to pay, through high interest loans from foreign banks that would not be repaid until after the second World War. The resultant taxes severely retarded any hope of economic recovery.

Then, in 1915, the U.S succeeded France as Haiti's primary tormentor when the great idealist Woodrow Wilson, acted on the private idealism confined to his journal that:
Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down … Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.
Wilson was eager to prevent the Hatian government from defaulting on its massive debt to U.S financial institution. He landed a detachment of marines in July. They quickly disbanded the Parliament at gunpoint, reinstituted forced labor, imposed a new Constitution, selected a pliant President, and seized control of custom houses, banks, and the National Treasury. 40% of the Haiti's GDP was then siphoned off towards debt repayments. From 1915 until its conclusion in 1934 the American occupation retained a veto power over all governmental decisions and staffed key administrative posts with American officials. Looking back on his experiences in Haiti and Latin America Gen. Smedley Butler reflected on the American mission:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. . . I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.
In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt, the author, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, of the American imposed Constitution, oversaw the withdrawal of American forces from an increasingly hostile Haiti under his 'Good Neighbor Policy'. The American troops were gone, but they left behind a battered nation, and a tiny, pro-American elite.

François "Papa Doc" Duvalier became a prominent member of that elite. In 1957 he became President, though initially hostile to U.S, relations improved as Duvalier positioned himself as a regional anti-Communist bulwark. His personal security service, the Tonton Macoutes, who were granted a blanket, preemptive pardon for all crimes, ravaged the nation, hunting down and killing, kidnapping, and torturing suspected opponents and Communists. The "immaterial being," as Duvailer styled himself, looted the National Treasury, while most Haitians languished in poverty and terror of the American backed security services. An estimated 30,000 people were liquidated during Duvailer's reign.

On his death Duvailer's nineteen year-old son Jean-Claude succeeded him as President for Life. Baby Doc was more playboy than politician, however, and left government affairs largely to family members and other associates who staffed the government with cronies. Those cronies continued to dominate Haitian politics even after Duvailer fled the country aboard an American military plane amidst a popular revolt in 1986.

Though the established elite maintained a tenuous grip on power following the collapse of the Duvailer dictatorship, Duvailerism without Duvailer, their influence was waning. By 1990 these pro-American elites were forced to hold a democratic election where Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic Priest whose political career began organizing the urban poor against repression, became Haiti's first democratically elected President with 67% of the vote.

His economic policies, however, diverged from the interests of the U.S and after seven months in office Aristide was deposed in a bloody coup, organized by elements of the security forces with strong ties to the United States. After three years of military rule the U.S government agreed to reinstate the ousted Haitian leader, but compelled him to accept the economic program of his defeated U.S backed opponent in the 1990 election, former World Bank official and Duvailer Finance Minister Marc Bazin. Haiti was forced to eliminate protective agricultural tariffs and import highly subsidized American rice, severely damaging the agricultural component of the economy, which employs two-thirds of the workforce. Anti-Aristide figures, such as CIA operative Emmanuel Constant, who formed the FRAPH death squad with the backing of the U.S Defense Intelligence Agency in 1993 to terrorize the President's supporters, were offered refuge in the U.S.

Aristide's term expired in 1996, but he returned to politics to compete in the 2000 Presidential election where voters awarded him another five-year mandate. In his second term Aristide returned to a populist agenda, proposing progressive economic and social reforms and demanding $21 billion of reparations from France for the extortion of 1825. That enraged powerful interests, and at a conference in Ottawa in 1993, France, Canada, and the United States, decided that Artistide had to go. A little over a year later an assortment of thugs, led by former death squad commander Guy Philippe and elements of the disbanded national army initiated a rebellion that quickly seized much of the national territory. On February 28, 2004 President Aristide was kidnapped aboard a U.S military plane and forced into exile in the Central Africa Republic.

An American backed regime, including a Prime Minister flown from the U.S for the occasion, took power following the coup. The new government's rule, according to Amnesty International, was marked by "[e]xcessive force and unlawful killings by police. . .political prisoners, no effective system to administer justice, uphold the rule of law and provide impartial protection of human rights," and a culture of impunity for officials accused of violations, all with the enthusiastic support of the U.S.

Despite the election of former Aristide ally René Préval to the Presidency in 2006 President Aristide had not been allowed to return to the country and his party continues to be banned from elections. The 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti adds one more chapter to a tortured history authored largely by the U.S, France, and a repressive local elite.

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